By Trudy Feenane

The Inauguration Day of the US president marks one of the most significant days in American history. A new chapter is started and a new leaf turns. On such a historic day, nothing is accidental nor coincidental. Every aspect of the ceremony is imbued with a signified meaning; a nod to the prospects of the coming four years.

Such is the meaning behind the fashion choices made by political figures on this day, particularly the fashion choices of the FLOTUS. Since 1912, the inaugural gowns of the first ladies have been preserved in the National Museum of American History. The material, origin and symbolism of the outfits are often read as a prerequisite for the intentions of the presidential couple while in office.

The first ladies of the 21st century have certainly been to the forefront of this convention, with a roundup below of what these female figures decided to wear on the historic day.

Laura Bush 

Before her time in the White House, Bush’s main passion resided in education. She spent time as both a teacher and librarian in her home state of Texas where she later served as First Lady of Texas, while her husband George W. Bush was governor. 

At her husband’s swearing in ceremony in 2001, Bush opted for a single-breasted, peacock blue coat and dress by Dallas couturier Michael Faircloth, and later a ruby-red, crystal embroidered gown of Chantilly lace over a silk georgette to the inaugural ball, again by Faircloth. A nod to her home state, some reports speculate that Faircloth encouraged the usually conservative Bush to choose the daring colour, according to the National Museum of American History. 

At her husband’s second inauguration in 2005, Bush wore an elegant Oscar de la Renta white cashmere embellished coat and dress, with matching pristine white gloves. De la Renta was a stalwart designer for the first ladies of the White House, having previously dressed Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton. 

George W. Bush, Laura Bush (dressed in Michael Faircloth), Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton pictured at the 2001 Inauguration Day. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Michelle Obama

Before the 2009 inauguration of her husband Barack Obama, Michelle Obama had already solidified herself as one of America’s fashion favourites. In both 2007 and 2008, she was listed in Vanity Fair’s magazine as being among 10 of the world’s best dressed people. She represented the modern woman, in touch with reality and willing to push sartorial boundaries. 

At the 2009 swearing-in ceremony, Obama had another distinct quality that added a layer to the historical day; she was the first Black First Lady of the United States. On the day, she opted for a lemon-grass coloured dress and jacket made with swiss wool lace, by New-York based designer Isabel Toledo. This marked the departure from the usual red, white and blue tones often incorporated by first ladies on such an occasion. Instead, this bright, spirited dress represented hope and optimism. She complemented this colour palette by adding olive green gloves by high-street American designer J.Crew. At the inaugural ball, Obama wore a one-shouldered rosette-covered ivory gown by Jason Wu, an up and coming designer at the time whose work was thrusted into fashion’s limelight thereafter. 

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at the inaugural parade in 2009. Obama is dressed in a matching Isabel Toledo dress and coat with olive green J. Crew gloves.

Photo: Getty Images 

Four years later, Obama appeared at the 2013 ceremony in a navy Thom Browne coat-dress. The checkered pattern fabric was developed based on the style of a men’s silk tie which at the time sent a clear message of a woman who meant business. She tied the coat-dress together with a silver embellished belt by Jason Wu. Obama returned to Wu, the New York based Canadian designer countless times during her times in office, and dazzled the crowd at the second inaugural ball in his fiery red chiffon halter neck dress. 

Michelle Obama at the 2013 Inauguration Day, dressed in a Thom Browne coat-dress with an embellished Jason Wu belt. Win McNamee/AFP/Getty Images

Melania Trump

Before stepping into office alongside her husband in 2017, Melania Trump had an enigmatic style choice that signified her years of modelling ventures and fashion campaigns. In the lead up to the presidential campaign in 2016, she soon adopted a more refined approach and began incorporating modest hemlines and reserved A-line silhouettes. She is now largely recognised for her statement coat choices, her Christian Louboutin collection and a Hermès Birkin bag to secure her looks.

At the swearing in ceremony, Trump opted for a sky blue mock turtleneck dress and cropped cutaway jacket paired with misty blue suede gloves, all by Ralph Lauren. The sophisticated all-American look kept in tune with her husband’s nationalist values, with Lauren representing the quintessential American look. Many high-end brands were quick to dissociate themselves from being a potential fashion choice of the first lady’s, with Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and Timo Weiland signifying their reluctance to have their brand associated with the Trump administration.

Despite the reluctance of some brands, Trump stepped out at the inaugural ball in a vanilla-white off the shoulder gown, tied with a delicate red banded ribbon around her waist. The design was a result of a collaboration between herself and French-American designer Hervé Pierre, who soon became a fashion reliable for the first lady. Pierre has held top posts at some esteemed names, such as Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta and Vera Wang. In choosing a white colour palette for the inaugural ball, Trump echoed the choices of previous first ladies, such as Michelle Obama and Nancy Reagan.


Donald Trump and Melania Trump at the 2017 Inauguration Day. Tump is dressed in sky blue mock turtleneck dress and cropped cutaway jacket by Ralph Lauren

Photo: Getty Images

Melania Trump at the inaugural ball in 2017 dressed in a vanilla-white off the shoulder gown by Hervé Pierre.

Getty Images

Jill Biden

Despite the inauguration of Joe Biden being like no other, First Lady Jill Biden’s marine blue ensemble was one that struck chords with stability, trust and confidence. Her tweed coat with velvet lapels was paired with a matching dress by emerging, New-York based sustainable label Markarian, created by designer Alexandra O’ Neill.

The design was custom made with hand-embellished Swarovski pearls and crystals shaping the neckline, with the same Swarovski crystals adorning the coat and dress. Biden certainly made her fashion presence felt in the Washington pantheon and signified her commitment to supporting young, American designers, in a similar way that Michelle Obama did during her tenure.

One notable accessory featured for the first time at the inaugural ceremony – a face mask. The face covering, which aptly matched Biden’s marine blue colour palette, was a reassuring gesture that stability was coming, even in a global state of disarray. The absence of an inauguration ball this year could only have left high-fashion devotees chasing loose speculations as to what the first lady would wear. Despite this, Biden has nonetheless established herself as the first lady of fashion, championing young, American designers along the way. 

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden at the 2021 Inauguration Day. Biden championed upcoming, sustainable label Markarian in her Marine blue tweed coat and dress. 

Photo: Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images

The fashion choices made by the first ladies of the 21st century reminds us of the powerful political messages that can be carried across in clothing. At that level of politics, the fabric acts as a manifesto, the colour as a signifier and the label as a declaration; all pointing to the fortune of the future four years.  

Author: Trudy Feenane